Swallowtail Butterfly (1996)
I'd seen the name Swallowtail Butterfly mentioned in quite a few places, always favourably. I either didn't know or couldn't remember the slightest thing about it, but decided to pick it up on an expensive whim.
Director Shunji Iwai has done a few movies that don't seem to get seen much in the west, but always draw praise when they do. I will certainly be looking out for his work in future, if Swallowtail Butterfly is a good representation of his talent.
Since I didn't know anything about the movie, and enjoyed it that way, I won't reveal too much. The main background to which the movie is set is the "Yentown". This is either the name that immigrant workers gave to the Japanese city to which they came looking for money, or the name given by the Japanese that rejected them to that class of people. It is also the name of the band that Shunji Iwai recruited for the movie, and the original name of the movie itself in Japan, just to make matters more confusing :)
At the start of the movie we see the corpse of a Chinese Yentown being handed over to the authorities. The other Yentown deny knowing her, and the 16 year old girl looking mournful particularly denies that she might have been her mother. This is untrue, but if nobody claims the body then the state will provide a funeral that her friends and relatives could not afford. The prospect of looking after the girl does not appeal to her mothers friends, so she is handed on from person to person until a prostitute called Glico finally takes pity on her.
The movie expands from this point in gradually widening circles, paced with a precision that would make King Hu proud. It's impossible to place the movie in one genre, but social-realism, coming of age drama, rockumentary and crime thriller all fit one part or another of the 2.5 hour running time. The whole movie is shot on hand-held cameras, sometimes in a dizzying documentary style, sometimes in a tense thriller style, sometimes in a gentle dream-like way. The use of filters and lighting, and a nice grainy film stock, all ensure that it looks wonderful throughout. The soundtrack is similarly wonderful from start to finish - both the orchestral background music of Takeshi Kobayashi and the flat out rock n' roll of The Yentown Band and their wonderful singer Chara (the new love of my life I think!).
The different tones of the movie that follow the shift in genre and the sometimes radical changes of scale that the narrative takes in are all blended skillfully, provoking a wide range of emotional responses. The performances are all excellent, and the characters very interesting and well defined.
In essence, this is basically a masterful film that shows extraodinary skill from Shunji Iwai as a director. Watching it is a reminder of just how far from the potential of the medium most movies fall. I look forward to following his career, wherever it might take him. It's such a shame that a movie that is such a work of art will probably be seen by a tiny audience in the USA, whilst brain-dead Hollywood "blockbusters" pack multiplexes in every town. I guess at least most people will never know what they're missing.